by Lisa Lieberman
In the memoir he was writing at the time he died, my friend Avresh described returning to the Czechoslovakian town of Sevlush, his birthplace, in the winter of 1946. He'd left some fifteen years earlier to attend a Jewish gymnasium in a larger city, stayed on to study engineering at the university and never looked back. This was his mother's wish for him: that he enter the great, free, secular world, liberate himself from the narrowness of his tradition. Escape.
When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, Avresh joined the Communist resistance. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo but inexplicably released, he made his way to the Soviet Union, expecting to be welcomed with open arms, a comrade in the fight against Nazism. Instead he was arrested at the border and charged with espionage—the fate of most Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Avresh spent two and a half years in the Gulag, shuffled from one prison camp to the next, but ended up an artillery officer in a Czech unit of the Russian army;
by the time he was discharged, he'd earned four medals for his service on the Eastern front. His favorite featured a picture of Stalin.
So it was as a decorated officer in a Russian army uniform that he returned to his town after the war. All the Jews were gone, rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. A Slovak family was living in his childhood home and not a trace of Avresh's own family remained. Looking for answers, he went to the neighborhood synagogue and peered in the door. The sanctuary, the balcony, the corridors and stairways were cluttered with belongings: furniture, pots and pans, bedding, books, knickknacks and photographs. A policeman stood watch over the household goods of the departed Jews of Sevlush. Town officials had collected the Jews' possessions and stored them in the synagogue to prevent looting. No Jews had returned to claim their things. Was there something he wanted from the collection, the policeman asked, some memento?
Avresh said he took nothing when he left Sevlush, but this is not strictly true. He carried no objects away from the synagogue, no material belongings, pointedly refusing the money the officials offered as “rent” on his family's house. What he took, along with the burden of guilt he carried—”I share the usual remorse of most Holocaust survivors lamenting why they are alive and why they did not try harder to save their perished family,” he wrote in his memoir—what he took, I would say, was a sense of spiritual belonging, the token that remained of his Jewish inheritance.
My friend was not a believer. Faith in God could not console him for the loss of his father and siblings, his beloved mother. Proud of his youthful “love adventures” with the beautiful gypsy girls of Sevlush, unfaithful to his wife of forty-some years, Avresh was hardly a paragon of virtue. Quite the opposite: he played the part of a ladies man with relish well into his eighties, calling my office and leaving cryptic messages in my voice mail as if we were carrying on some tryst behind our spouses' backs when all I wanted was to schedule him to speak in one of my classes. Hitting on my female students. And yet he tried to be useful to humanity, to heal the world as Jewish tradition instructed, in his own way.
I have a vivid memory of Avresh, age ninety, protesting in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on a bitter January day, demanding a moratorium on capital punishment in the name of human dignity. In the Gulag, when a fellow prisoner collapsed from overwork, he told my students, they left him lying in the snow. He could not stand by now and watch a man die. It was his obligation to speak out, his obligation as a Jew, a fallen Jew who no longer lived according to the laws of his tradition, but one who clung stubbornly to a shred of that tradition: the lesson that life is sacred and that dignity is owed to even the poorest and the most degraded members of society.
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Dignity was the core value of the Polish physician, educator, and Godless Jew who is the subject of Andrzej Wajda's film Korczak (1990). In the face of terrible poverty and disease—conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were appalling, the death rate surpassing 5,000 per month out of a total population of some 470,000 inhabitants—Janusz Korczak's orphanage was a model of order and civility. His charges were not only fed and clothed, but they were also educated to the highest standards even as the deprivations increased. Musical recitals continued to be held, art lessons, dramatic performances, poetry readings all went on as if these children's world were not coming to an end and as if the outside world had not turned callous and lost interest in the plight of such innocents. And when the round-ups began, Korczak accompanied his orphans in the cattle car to Treblinka, keeping the truth from the children so that they might meet their deaths with composure.
Korczak's insistence on upholding the cultural values of the European elite amid the squalor of the Ghetto functioned as an eloquent defense against Nazi efforts to degrade the Jews by reducing them to the level of beasts, both at the time and symbolically, in the commemorative literature that turned him into a legend after the war. But Wajda's film ends on a surreal note that undercuts this message. The Nazis raid the orphanage. Korczak bargains for a few extra minutes, to give him time to organize an orderly exodus. The children have been told they are going on a trip to the countryside. Obediently, they line up behind the adult staff members, each carrying a little knapsack filled with cherished belongings. We see them marching past armed German soldiers, soft snowflakes floating about, like feathers. We seem to have entered the realm of bedtime stories, a muffled world where bad things happen without touching us. Here's how cinema critic Danièle Heymann described what happens next in her review for Le Monde:
The deportation orders are signed. The liquidation of the ghetto is underway. Under the Star of David, the children and Dr. Korczak enter the sealed carriage singing.
And then the doors swing open—a coda to a sleepy, disgusting dream on the edge of revisionism—and we see how the little victims, energetic and joyful, emerge in slow-motion from the train of death. Treblinka as the salvation of murdered Jewish children? No . . . Not ever.
Heymann was offended by Wajda's Christianizing impulse, which presented the children's extermination as salutary suffering for the edification of humanity, but it is worth noting that Elie Wiesel's Night (1958) was embraced by Nobel laureate and Catholic humanist François Mauriac in similar terms, as a spur to Christian faith. In his foreword to the French edition (which still appears in American editions of the book), Mauriac recalled his first encounter with “the young Jew” (Wiesel) in the light of his subsequent reading of the novel.
What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him, and whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine?
Christianizing the Holocaust was nothing new, although Wajda did not help his case by insisting that it was art's responsibility to be uplifting. “There would have been nothing easier than showing the death of the children in the gas chamber,” he said. “[But] it seems to me that it is beautiful that when we do not agree to the fact that the children were gassed, we create a legend that these children go somewhere, into some better world.”
I do not want to diminish the seriousness of the complaints against the film. After the fall of Communism, the Holocaust became contested ground as Polish Catholics sought to reassert their identity by memorializing Catholic victims of the Nazis—something they were not permitted to do when Poland was part of the Soviet Bloc. The controversy surrounding the opening of a Carmelite convent near Auschwitz had reached a peak at the very time that Wajda was making Korczak. Polish nationalists would eventually erect hundreds of crosses at the site, angering Jewish groups and provoking a showdown with the government. A large cross commissioned in 1979 for a mass celebrated at Auschwitz by Pope John Paul II still stands in view of the camp. As historian Omer Bartov argues in The “Jew” in Cinema, “Whether the cinematic Korczak speaks as a Pole or as a Jew, he is clearly represented in the film—and remembered by the Poles—as a Pole who chose to share the fate of the Jews in the heroic manner befitting his nation.”
And yet, viewing Korczak alongside Wajda's famous World War II trilogy, I've come to appreciate the director's intentions. A Generation (1955) dramatizes the Communist underground's involvement in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Kanal (1957) follows a doomed group of Warsaw resistance fighters as they battle it out with the Nazis, much of the action taking place in the city's sewers, while Ashes and Diamonds (1958) focuses on the confrontation between Polish partisans and the incoming Communist forces on the last day of the war. None of these films is uplifting; Wajda conceived of them as tributes to people defending lost causes. “One has to fight to the end,” he said of Kanal. What made the characters heroic was their ability to master their fear.
I would like to suggest that Korczak was no less of a tribute to a heroic warrior, although the fight, here, was a nonviolent one. In a key scene toward the end of the picture, Korczak is confronted by a former charge, an orphan who has grown up to become a member of the Jewish underground. The young man sneers at his teacher's pacifism. Ghetto Jews are colluding in their own destruction thanks to teachings like his. What is wanted is armed resistance.
My friend Avresh shook his head at this point. Armed resistance got him nowhere (unless you count the Stalin medal). He owed his survival to sheer luck. The family he left behind in Sevlush was not so lucky, but Wajda's film allowed him to imagine that they went to their deaths with dignity.